Thursday, May 17, 2012

Humans... old humans

Recently I can't stop bumping into information on scientific discoveries about early humanity.  First it was science websites talking about the earliest proved artifacts of deep sea fishing and bug repellant bedding arrangements.  Next it was my biology class ending with a section on human evolution.  Now, it looks like my general education humanities class begins with a discussion of cro-magnon culture and artifacts.  The introduction to the course spent an entire page warning me that I was going to have to deal with information that contradicted or failed to support the bible.

Believe it or not, I'm actually somewhat pleased that my human evolution studies are being followed almost immediately by a discussion of cro-magnon culture and ancient civilizations.  It will be almost like picking up where I left off on the subject.  The best sum up of what I've learned so far is that "anatomically modern humans" have been around for a long time as far as science can tell, probably 100,000 years or more.  Even early in that time they made stone tools, developed art work, and ritual behavior probably indicative of religion. 

There are two things that bother me the most upon encountering these subjects.  First is that the people who purported to teach me about these subjects before and propose rudimentary systems of synthesizing scientific and religious knowledge apparently either knew very little or they were rejecting scientific reality to replace it with their own.  One professor claimed that neanderthals disappearing and anatomically modern humans appearing lined up with the Book of Genesis time lines.  Apparently he never really bothered fact checking who ever told him that or he made it up.  Neanderthals disappear from the fossil record about 30,000 years ago and overlapped in time a lot with and hybridized a little with modern humans.  Another professor claimed that we should simply view any human fossil from more than 5-6 thousand years ago to simply be non human.  Again, there's no science to back that up, from all appearances he simply made that up because it was the easiest way for him to reconcile the subjects.  Speculation proposed as fact with no evidence isn't something I should have been wasting my time listening to.  This doesn't bother me as much as it might because I've come to suspect anything that I learned from that set of professors as highly suspect.  At George Wythe it is quiet possible to be an academic jack of all trades and a master of none.

The second thing that really bothers me is that there has been little evolution of LDS doctrine to constructively deal with new evidence.  The Articles of Faith explicitly describe that God will yet reveal many important things, the D&C describes a line upon line process of gaining knowledge, the D&C describes all knowledge as being the inheritance of the saints, and doctrinal practice as described across the ancient and modern scripture makes it clear that God is frequently willing to let us rest on the laurels of our own cultural misunderstandings if it isn't particularly urgent that we learn better.  That all being said I think we should anticipate that as new knowledge and discoveries are made that church doctrine will somehow constructively adapt to avoid dogmatizing what were probably misunderstandings to begin with.  I propose no synthesis of doctrines.  I'm just sharply disappointed that none has been forthcoming.

Instead of any attempt to show that the different points of view can or should be reconciled with science we get talks quoted in lesson manuals about how a supposedly more careful reading of Genesis will prove that no organisms were mortal or died before Adam partook of the fruit.  Given an extensive fossil record that shows that people and organisms died before the garden ever took place this claim is so weak that it doesn't deserve to be part of the teaching.  But it is still there.  Believing this doctrine requires us to come up with explanations about how all those buried fossils weren't actually dead but were simply in a suspended animation till Adam partook of the fruit at which point a whole bunch of stuff died rather quickly.  It's always 'possible' this or some other explanation could reconcile our approved Institute manuals with science but it hardly seems likely.  Rather than acknowledging scientific evidence and flexibly suggesting that reinterpretation is possible we seem to be stuck in a position of trying to pick fights with science.

Here is what I believe has happened to us.  The LDS church has made statements from time to time discouraging us from exploring science based on religious belief or religion based on science.  If you link the two together when the science turns out to be wrong or incomplete the religious ideas you attached to it go out the window along with it.  However, in practice this restriction only appears to apply forwards in time.  Nobody ever gets up and says that we should throw out our pre restoration of the church ideas about science and religion- only avoid making new ones.  From Plato and Aristotle down animals and plants were considered to be unchanging over time, if I remember my biology textbook said because it was believed the species represented divine platonic "forms".  The LDS church latches onto this idea when it describes animals and plants being physical manifestations of spiritual creations.  Darwin didn't publish his ideas confronting the "mutability of species" until after Joseph Smith's death.  Without exploring science and religion together in the ways discouraged by the church pre-Darwinian ideas about science and religion are therefore essentially locked into place because it was the default assumption to make.  Granted, trying to come up with something logically consistent that divorces LDS thought from Aristotle on the mutability of species would be very hard.  It gives me headaches to think about.  However, I'd rather have the church actively engaging with the possibility of doctrinal reinterpretation rather than teaching us to assume all new discoveries in archeology and biology are false.


sleepyhamster said...

It frustrates me when i see "scientists" or "archaeologists" look for new discoveries to prove their pre-conceived notions.
Hey, we found this old MUST be Noah's ark!
We found something in south America that could possibly be construed as a horse. Proof of the Book of Mormon is true!
Scientists with agendas make me uncomfortable because I never feel like I can thoroughly trust them. They're out to prove something that they want to prove and i worry they will try to make the facts fit their agenda. That would also fit the professors at George Wythe. They seem to all have had their own agenda they wanted to get across to students. That angers me. They used what was supposed to be an academic position; a position of authority, to push agendas that didn't fit academia. I see that as reprehensible. As well as scientists who ignore facts because they don't fit with their ideas.
it reminds me of when i learned about natural selection in homeschool. Mom would say how everything in the textbook was wrong. The pepper moths I think it was. She said they weren't a different colour, just looked like it because they were covered in coal or something ridiculous like that.
Lets look at science and draw logical conclusions from that. Sounds good to me.
I'm really glad you're able to learn actual science and are smart enough to accept it. So many people would look at what you're learning and reject it because it doesn't fit what they've been taught.

Julia - Finding My Way Softly said...

I looked up the university, but still am not sure where to place it in the academic world I am familiar with. I grew up in Oregon, have been a member all my life and attended public schools and have an Associate's of Science from our local community college.

I was in the honors philosophy/political science program which involved reading more source materials than non-honors students, and required a sophomore thesis to get an honors diploma. We did a lot of mock trial and simulations as part of our seminar classes, so I am familiar with some of the teaching methods that are described. Your experiences with your professors and science class don't fit well into any of those teaching methods, as they were in my program.

We certainly had comparative religion classes that looked at both secular and religious beliefs as they developed with in the originating culture, but not with any attempt to prove one better than the other. Instead we were learning how the two impacted each other. LDS beliefs were included in the American Revival traditions, in that contest, but in the form of seeing the LDS as outliers who didn't see science in conflict with the basic doctrinal principles. How do the professors deal with that in other religions? (I couldn't tell from the school website or Wikipedia entry whether the school was primary LDS or not. There seemed to be a sense of not directly stating philosophies, religion or what groups are primary supporters.)

** I hope that my questions don't come across as anything more than genuine curiosity. I haven't known LDS members who saw science and LDS doctrine as incompatible. I am sure that the large number of teachers, quite a few of whom teach science, and scientists working in that capacity professionally, made up a significant portion of most wards (more than 10% and in my home ward drivable close to 25%) impacted the fact that science and LDS doctrine were not compatible.

Before the Bloggernacle, I had never been taught, or heard anyone expressing the thought that literal earth age claims, to fit Old Testament timelines, was part of LDS teachings in some groups and that there were people who didn't not believe in at least the basics of high school science. I had never heard the "no literal death" before the fall. Instead, the explanation that creative periods were probably millennia in "earth time" and that evolution was a tool that a God, with a deep understanding of the scientific laws of the universe, would use to create a diversity of creatures, as well as the bodies that could be ready to accept the souls of spirit children, made perfect doctrinal and scientific sense to me. I was taught that we don't know exactly how priesthood power was used in organizing the earth. For me, it made sense that since God is a God of order, who is able to see all times at once, I haven't ever doubted that He would carefully organize the materializes and circumstances for an earth that would supply all of the temporal things we need.

So, I am curious how these things play out in your classes, if they are taught by LDS instructors. (I am assuming this since it says the college sometimes borrows professors from BYU and other LDS colleges in Utah, on the website.) In high school how was science taught, and how does that compare to my teenage understanding of the gospel and science?

CrouchingOwl said...

Whew, takes me a bit to catch up to respond to your post. Sorry I was not quick in replying.

For history here in my past I attended a George Wythe University which had little or no science program to speak of. I am now at USU. Most all of the statements about science I ever heard from the GWU were pretty uninformed or were simply trying to fit or invent ideas to match with their personal religious interpretations. Making stuff up about the fossil record, claiming things about quantum mechanics that were mostly mystic hocus pocus and not actually real science, etc… Dr. DeMille had no particular use for science as it didn’t give him a direct route to a revelatory experience of absolute truth. As far as other religions, ummm, each instructor would have a unique opinion but Dr .DeMille tended to accept any religions claims regarding itself at face value even if history proved that a different account was true (such as accepting the traditional claims of antiquity of the writing of kabbalic texts even if scholarship proved them to be of recent origin). He was willing to be pretty extreme in this acceptance as long as he could reinterpret the religious belief system to be somehow derivative of a monotheistic adamic religion. So the religion of the ancient Greeks he couldn’t accept except as a metaphor for human behavior because the polytheism was too deeply rooted in the system to be ignored. As long as he could keep the adamic derived religion idea going in his head he was willing to accept the validity of human sacrifice and crystal energy healing. You asked if the school was primarily LDS or not. The answer is yes it was primarily LDS, but the interpretation of LDS thought was driven by the faculty’s interest in christian Kabbalah and the buddist inspired writings of Ken Wilber. GWU changes rapidly and different faculty bring with them very different approaches and ideals. The current president of the school, last I checked, actually has training as a sports medicine therapist or something like that and therefore has something of a biological sciences background and may have steered the institution away from the bizarre stuff I noticed when I was there.

If this all seems extreme and strange, for context Dr. DeMille participated in founding GWU with a self awarded Phd and a mail order JD before he officially had graduated from BYU with his undergraduate’s degree. There is a very large rabbit hole to go down on this issue but it boils down to that the people who frustrated me at GWU were not qualified to make any sort of scientific claims and only a very few of them had the background to even understand anything about science at all. They didn’t want to see a conflict between LDS thought and religion so they re-imagined science to match their belief systems, such as Dr. DeMille claiming that the modern human species appears in the fossil record at a timing coinciding with the genesis account without DNA connection to the Neanderthals before them. It’s a really convenient claim spiritually, but scientifically bankrupt. I had accepted it upon first hearing it because growing up I had been taught that evolution was a dying idea that scientists persisted in because it gave them a last possible chance to deny God’s existence but that any reasonable person could see was untrue. Taking the basic biology classes required for my major at USU has made it pretty clear that that perspective was more or less propaganda, not really based on reality in which evolution is scientifically doing just fine.

The class I’m talking about in this post actually is one that I took at Utah State University which has a very rigorous science program and in general I am proud of the science they teach there. The instructors might be from any religious background, in general they don’t tell us what it is up front because it’s a state school and there isn’t much space for personal religious beliefs to be part of the teaching.

CrouchingOwl said...

I don’t see LDS thought and science as necessarily being in conflict, but that there are many who feel life would be simpler to view as a battle or conflict and so try to interpret church doctrine in a way to give them an easy ground to stand upon to fight the science they don’t feel comfortable with.

As far as the no death before the fall thing, several apostles actually have taken rather strong stances on that subject for and against the idea. The general authorities who believe the idea have been influential enough that the arguments for that are included in lesson manuals etc and the opposing viewpoint is not. So I came across them assuming that they were the official doctrine of the church as opposed to the personal beliefs of Joseph Fielding Smith. General authorities who believed this view were influential enough in spreading their case that its even written down as if it were official doctrine in the LDS bible dictionary under the entry “death” on page 655, in the Doctrines of the Gospel institute manual between pages 19-20, and in other sources as well. B.H. Roberts and James E. Talmage in particular disagreed with this teaching and we apparently have writings of his where he speculates that the humans on earth before the bible time line describes Adam were probably some other dispensation of the gospel that God decided not to tell us about. A good summary of the conflict on the subject can be found on the following website

When I took institute classes in which the no death before the fall was presented as solid doctrine and I realized that there was no possible way that could be true unless God made us an earth with the appearance of age (fake or recycled bones, radioactive decay information, tree rings, coral reef growth patterns, etc) for no apparent reason. I’ve never found the argument believable that God is messing with us on purpose to see if we will believe him regardless of the fake data he plants in the earth. So I was actually greatly comforted to know that some General Authorities had who rejected this idea and were willing to work with the hard facts of humans existing before the intuitive biblical date for Adam’s fall at 4000 B.C.

CrouchingOwl said...

I've updated the tags on more recent posts to make it easier to scan through previous posts about GWU if you are curious about it further.